Discussion: February 9, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

In today’s edition a reader says, “My degree beats your certification!”

Why are firms so ignorant of one’s university degrees and instead treat certifications like CPA with much more respect? To complete a degree takes quite a bit of effort. (Try to take MBA school in four exams like a CPA does!) Degrees are expensive, but firms treat us like idiots. What’s so special about a certification? After much consideration I finally sat for FAR part of CPA certification. It cost me $235 and content-wise it barely covered the scope of my undergraduate accounting curriculum. Am I missing something here? My MBA degree is far more valuable than a certification. I need to know How to Say It when I meet with an employer.

How to Say It: Would someone like to explain this? Yah, a certification is proof that someone passed a qualifying exam… whether in accounting or data base administration… but is it more valuable than a college degree? And how do you say it to an employer?


  1. My experience is with the CFA exam vis a vis a top MBA promgram. Originally I thought the CFA was fairly rigorous and it is. But when I started my MBA afterward, I was that the CFA had glossed over topics that even the first core course of the MBA program treated with more detail. Clearly you can not compare the two, the MBA clearly being more valuable to any employer. But the judgement call unfortunately resides with the employer. I had the same problem with my engineering degree from a top US school. Head hunters compared my GPA with other types of degrees. In engineering you are lucky to survive. It’s not comparable to say the least. My experience is that you will not be able to convince an employer that doesnt have a clue. All you can do is focus on firms that have the educational background to know the difference. This is a company experience and culture issue and you won’t be able to change that much from the outside or from the candidate’s chair, would be my view. Best, sm

  2. As I’ve gotten back into job search mode and have been searching job listings, I’ve had the same concern about the requirements for many of the jobs I’ve seen posted. Not so much from the standpoint of the degree vs. certifications, but more regarding the real relevance of some of the certifications required. In particular, as with the person asking the original question, I’ve debated the active CPA permit/certification requirement listed for most all accounting, auditing, and finance jobs in private industry, as if CPA certification was some universal indicator of skills. That is not nearly reality. In my experience it definitely doesn’t indicate that a person has the ability to fill accounting management positions that don’t include significant external financial reporting or tax responsibilities. However, it is the apparent reality of the job market. It becomes an exclusionary qualification, allowing computerized resume screens and HR junior staff resume reviewers to make the submitted resume pile smaller without regard to the job relevant experience or training that someone not fitting the stereotypical profile may actually have.

    I have thought about the topic and could write an extremely long dissertation on why some of the certifications required have absolutely no relevance to the job responsibilities listed in the job posting. However, writing my thoughts here would take up a lot of space and won’t provide the original questioner any answers, won’t change most recruiters & HR departments methods, and would probably come across as a negative attitude. So, let’s just accept it as a reality that none of us are likely to change and consider what can be done as a positive approach.

    As Steven Morales wrote, the best option is probably not to waste your time applying for those jobs. If the CPA (or any other certification) is listed as an absolute requirement, rather than an option or preference, and you don’t have that certification, then the most likely outcome will be that your resume will be flushed down the drain in the initial screening. Also, as Steven wrote, why would you want to work for a company that shows by its possibly irrelevant job requirements that it doesn’t value the kinds of skills, abilities, and solutions you can bring to the organization. Forget the employers that don’t appear to have a clue.

    A better approach is to research the companies you’d like to work for, find out what the job requires, and try to identify what problems the companies have that you can solve. Then, network like crazy to try to find people in those companies who might agree to look at your resume, consider the solutions you bring, help you bypass the computers & recruiters, and try to get you in front of the hiring decision maker. Take Nick’s advice on trying to reach people who can be a Preemptive Reference for you or who can assist you to get into the hiring process because they recognize your abilities. It is a lot of work to do the research to identify those companies and to find the right networking contacts. It won’t feel like you are actually applying for as many jobs as you should. You will submit to many fewer companies. But, your success rate for getting into the interview process should be substantially higher and you will already know that the people who want to talk to you value what you can potentially deliver.

    BTW – For those who think I am commenting because I don’t have the certification, I have been an auditor in a Big 4 firm, I have passed the CPA exam, and I have had my own CPA practice, which required a permit to practice. I will reactivate my CPA permit to practice when I return to the USA, even though none of the jobs I’m applying for actually involve work that remotely matches the kind of work for which an active permit is required by state licensing regulation. That is just the reality of the job search game and it is waste of energy fighting it while trying to conduct a job search. However, in addition to holding several other certifications that are actually relevant to the jobs I’m applying for, I’ve also been successful in positions such as operational auditor, IA and SOX Compliance Director in both the US and Asia, business unit controller, CFO for a privately held mfg company, and general manager of a small European manufacturer. From my experience in operational & accounting management positions, I’ve observed that very little of what is done as an external auditor has any real relevance in many management positions, unless the job is specifically external financial reporting or taxes.

  3. Depends on the what the “Certification Dejour” is. Your red hot certification trumps my newly minted MBA diploma today. Your Novell 3 Certified Engineer is worth less than the paper my 10 year old MBA diploma is printed on.

  4. Good points made if the CPA is required. As Steve noted you’re likely fighting a cultural thing (someone sometime somewhere in that company of importance e.g. a founder had a CPA & is a believer) and it’s not up for discussion. If it’s a preference.. you’d not get into a contest as to what’s better, just be nice and note your belief is equality. You took an MBA path, rather than a CPA path. You might reinforce it by noting you took a CPA exam & found your MBA regimen covered it well. (not that it beat the stuffings out of it. Than dance away from that into Nick’s main overall advice your experience and doing the job. Try and get the interviewer to put a real situation on the table and show your financial stuff.
    As to certs..of any ilk, for simplicities sake you can divide the hiring world in half. Those who believe in them and those who don’t. So as someone said, if a cert is hardwired, you’re seeing a believer and save your effort for an open mind.

  5. Wow, this guy sounds quite disgruntled!

    I admittedly know little about accounting or CPA practice. However, I do know about state licensure – I hold a license as a professional surveyor. Achieving licensure as a CPA is a statuatory title, not just a ‘certification’. It demonstrates to the public that you have met the educational & experience requirements (the legal requirements) for the practice of public accounting in a given State. Regardless of how elementary the CPA tests may or may not be, having the title of CPA is a commodity for employers to be able to utilize, in much the same way an individual who has achieved professional licensure as an engineer or surveyor is more valuable to an employer than an individual who has not. I wholeheartedly agree that undergrad & postgrad degrees are of greater overall value & difficulty in achieving…but unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily translate intrinsically to a commodity with which an employer will benefit from – if they are in fact requiring this license / title for their available openings.

    Additionally, a State’s occupational code typically requires a specified percentage of the principals in a company offering or practicing ‘said profession’ to hold professional license (or statuatory title) in order to be in business and legally be able to offer these professional services.

    Final thrust – If an employer is looking for this licensure or statuatory title for whatever openings they have, you really have no business pursuing them, much less complaining about it. Maybe its time to achieve this licensure, you seem to imply it would be quite easy; of a surety, it costs less money than your collegiate career and will only benefit you in the long run.

  6. Certifications may be more valuable than a degree, but does it really matter? Are we really wanting to play a petty of game of “Which is crap?” when really that isn’t a worthwhile point, IMO. While one could go to great lengths in an interview to try to show, “That degree cost me soooo freakin’ much man!” the value of doing so may be minimal. A similar idea would be to get some star athlete to say that studying art is dumb or a computer genius putting down studying economics.

    The perception of this versus that may be the root cause of this, but don’t forget that there are various employer views to this. If an employer wants someone that already knows X, then finding someone with a certification in that, whether that be Cisco Networking equipment or some analyst certification may be good in the short-term. If the company only wants someone to come in for one project and then be gone, is it really worthwhile giving the new guy months to read up about the gear used? Maybe not. On the other hand, one may want to give an employer the long-term perspective and try to paint that picture.

  7. A fairly recent phenomenon (last couple of decades) is a girth of MBA’s in middle management, all coming in thinking they are hot shots, before their egos are shot down with reality.

    MBA degrees have become a dime a dozen, and the value further depends on someone’s MBA major.

    The swell of MBA’s in middle management is because there will never be enough executive jobs for them, and most of them do not have the potential to make it to the executive suites in any event. They end up settling for middle management.

    I don’t have an MBA, but I spent approximately seven years completing all my various investment and finance designations, while working in the industry along side many MBAs. I have sat in meetings with MBA’s, wondering what on earth they did during their two years in MBA school.

    Someone with industry designations and experience in the investment industry is far, far more valuable than an MBA out of college or with just a few years of experience.

  8. Note to Steven Morales.

    Did you mean a CPA or a CFA?

    The three-year CFA course is one of the toughest courses around, and many MBAs end up failing it (close to fifty-percent failure rate in the first year).

    Many doors in the Investment Industry won’t even open for those without a CFA — even if they have an MBA.

    The CFA course concentrates on subjects specific to the investment industry; so if you are referring to the CFA, that would be why it doesn’t cover the same depth as your MBA might have done.

  9. Employers who look for specific certifications or licenses know what the requirements are for obtaining those certificates and licenses. Those requirements are the same for everyone. The MBA degree vary widely by institution. An MBA from one university is not necessarily the equivalent to an MBA from another university. Also, an MBA in marketing is not the same as an MBA in finance, nor should the various majors require the same things. This makes it much more difficult for the company to evaluate the MBA as an employment requirement.

    Employers want to make job requirements easy to understand, both for the applicant and the HR professional who has to screen the resumes and cover letters before the interviews are offered. Of course, reducing the requirements to listings of certificates or licenses will exclude potential candidates who cannot meet those requirements. The ideal candidate will look at what it would take to meet any certificate or license requirements and obtain any they can.

  10. Just a note to Neva.

    I’m referring to the CFA. Have experience with both and wouldn’t downplay the rigor of the CFA title, as I mentioned before.

    But if you’ve taken the CFA we both know, that year 1 is multiple choice, which I aced without particular difficulty. Year two got a little sticky with some stuff on leasing which I ignored (not seeing the relevance). And the section on ethics seems to give many candidates problems because it doesn’t appear to be very quantitative but subjective. The topics on fixed income, currency and macro, I just took a quick glance at. So level II took 2 tries. After that it was smooth sailing since year 3 is portfolio management, which is not complex. After level2, the pass rates generally go up to 65%/70%

    The books are excellent and very clearly written, by the way, and I still keep those on quantitive issues and valuation close at hand for quick reference.

    Is obtaining a CFA a solid achievement? Of course it is. No doubt. But when you’re in a tier 1 MBA program, the preparation and the sacrifice to get in is tremendous, the academics are deep, you grow tremendously with your peers and you can obtain another view and understanding of the world around you given the breadth of the program.

    My view is that companies can benefit in multi faceted ways from those employees who’ve taken the top MBA route.

    Best, sm

  11. @Richard Archer

    I think this is a key point:
    ** It becomes an exclusionary qualification, allowing computerized resume screens and HR junior staff resume reviewers to make the submitted resume pile smaller without regard to the job relevant experience or training**

    If you want to consider how to defend yourself from being rejected inappropriately, you have to stay away from HR and the processing system. Always ask yourself, does my method of approaching this company enable it to judge me using an arbitrary or automated rule?

  12. @Don Harkness: Always remember that HR has a lot of incoming applicants to process. Hence, it’s always looking for “rules of thumb” to help sort the data. The more machine-readable data your appliction provides, the more quickly and easily HR can dump you.

  13. @KP Carey: I think you make a good point. Government cannot require anyone to get a college degree. But it can require a test and a certification or license. Thus a person who does not have a degree can still obtain a license and meet some “standard” the govt considers acceptable. We’re talking about two different standards: One set by the govt to “protect consumers” and another (the college degree), which is an optional standard that’s valued on another level.

    For example, a person can become a Professional Engineer (PE) without going to engineering school or getting a degree. I know PE’s who got their certification without going to college; I also know what they went through to prepare for the test. A lawyer can take the bar exam without law school. (Good luck.) This stems from the history of certain professions, at a time when college was not the path. Apprenticeship was. You’d go work with a lawyer (or accountant) who would train you, then you’d sit for the exam.

    Almost makes you wonder: What’s better? A structured degree, or a few years’ apprenticeship, on the job training, one-on-one guidance and some book study – or a classroom for 4+? years?

    Maybe the right angle is somewhere inbetween.

  14. @Nick
    ***What’s better? A structured degree, or a few years’ apprenticeship, on the job training, one-on-one guidance and some book study – or a classroom for 4+? years?***

    Maybe there isn’t a single “better” that applies to everyone. It would depend on their personality and learning style, among other things.

    If we push everyone into a single mode, are we then missing out on some valuable talent along the way? Would some of these “different style” folk be able to bring a fresh perspective to business that would otherwise be lacking?

  15. also @ Nick:

    and thats kind of the rub. Say youre a recent graduate with a masters degree in civil engineering from Cal-Tech. Statuatory requirement for attaining a PE license will still likely require minimum of 3 yrs work under other licensed PEs (in most states). Thus, if an opening you’re pursuing is requiring a PE license, someone who has attained that license (whether or not being college degreed) stands a better chance in pursuing said opening, despite your pedigreed academic credentials.

    The employer requiring a license is more than likely looking for the experience that comes with having attained the license (the apprenticeship aspect). Again, I’m not talking software or proprietary certifications, but state sanctioned licenses, which is what a CPA is – if that is what the OP was referring to.

    thanx KC

  16. Someone mentioned that MBA’s vary widely by program. I used to work in an MBA program, that’s not really true. Most of that is marketing and branding by the schools but, almost all the well known schools are accredited by the same two agencies. I’ve gone through the process with both and I know they do hold schools accountable to teach pretty much the same thing. Add to that, profs often teach at more than one school. The actual information is really more similar from school to school, than not.